Certificate programs have become so popular and controversial that The New York Times has published a major article on the subject in a special edition of Life.
In essence, the message of the coverage is: Ask the right questions before you sign on the dotted line and apply for five-figure educational loans.
Certificate programs, a type of vocational training, are nothing new. For years, it was through such formal programs that people learned skills in fields such as court reporting. What's new is the rapid growth of such programs, both in the non-profit and for profit training sectors.
With the economy changing so quickly and the current shortage of jobs, many view this route as a relatively fast and highly focused way to acquire marketable skills. In some cases the investment in time and money would seem to make sense. According to a report by the Center on Education and Workforce at Georgetown University, a certificate earned in addition to a high school diploma can add about $117,000 to lifetime earnings.
However, not all certificate programs have that kind of payoff. In fact, too many of them have left those completing the training with no job and $28,000 or more in student loan debt. After graduation, of those who do secure employment, the compensation has often been too low to allow them to repay loans.
The way to avoid that disappointing return on your investment [ROI] is to take the time to ask the right questions -- or, as it's sometimes called, doing "due diligence." Here are some basic questions you should be asking. Depending on your field you may benefit from asking even more questions. Contact those already employed in that line of work to identify what else you must investigate.
Is this program accredited and by what organizations?
In the paralegal industry, for example, accreditation by the American Bar Association matters quite a bit.
What is the entry level salary and the average annual compensation?
If you're going to be earning about $25,000 a year for most of your career, you probably can't afford to take on a great deal of educational debt.
In addition to certification, how else can you enter this field?
Most employers look for experience, not a certificate. To obtain experience without formal training, look for help wanted ads, for jobs in your field. in which don't require previous training.
If you'd like to work, for example, in the field of public relations, but don't have a degree or any certification in a related area, you might start out by working for a company as a copy editor.
Getting your foot in the door may open up opportunities. In addition to the valuable experience you'll gain, you'll also benefit from the fact that many organizations like to hire from within. So when you do complete your certification, you'll have two legs up on the competition, instead of just one.
What is demand in field?
Currently too many paralegals are being certified for too few jobs. Conduct some research online to determine if your industry is growing or shrinking, and to discover what the long-term prospects look like.
What are this program's placement statistics?
Keep in mind, it's easy to manipulate how job figures are reported. Graduates who are working, but not in the field they trained for, might be counted in the category of "employed."
What are names and contact information for graduates who are working and the employers they were hired by?
Ask those you interview if they know of members of the same profession who are working in the field, but did not go the certification route. Contact them as well. Compare the stories from both kinds of workers. Ask employers if they actually prefer hiring candidates with certification.